Regime forces advance towards key town in northwest Syria

Beirut (AFP) – Regime fighters pushed further into a jihadist-run bastion in northwest Syria Wednesday, inching towards a key town after months of deadly bombardment, a monitor said.

Eight years into Syria’s civil war, the jihadist-run region of Idlib is the last major stronghold of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Air strikes and rocket fire by the regime and its ally Russia have pounded Idlib for more than three months, killing hundreds and displacing tens of thousands.

In the south of the stronghold, almost all residents of Khan Sheikhun — which lies on a key highway coveted by the regime — have left the town.

The road in question runs through Idlib, connecting government-held Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, which was retaken by loyalists from rebels in December 2016.

After a week of ground advances, Assad’s fighters were just a few kilometres away from the town on Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“Regime forces are now four kilometres (2.5 miles) from Khan Sheikhun to the west, with nothing between them and it but fields,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.

To the east, pro-Assad fighters are battling to control a hill just six kilometres (less than four miles) from the town, the head of the Britain-based Observatory said.

Clashes on Wednesday have killed 14 regime forces, as well as 20 jihadists and seven allied rebels, he said.

State news agency SANA on Wednesday said army troops had taken several villages from the jihadists and rebels in the area west of Khan Sheikhun.

AFP correspondents have reported seeing dozens of families flee fighting over the past few days, heading north in trucks piled high with belongings.

A buffer zone deal brokered by Russia and Turkey last year was supposed to protect the Idlib region’s three million inhabitants from an all-out regime offensive, but it was never fully implemented.

An alliance led by fighters from Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate — Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — took over full control of the anti-Assad stronghold in May.

Regime and Russian air strikes and shelling since late April have killed almost 820 civilians, the Observatory says.

The United Nations says dozens of health centres as well as schools have been targeted.

Humanitarian workers have warned that any fully-blown ground attack on Idlib would cause one of the worst humanitarian disasters of Syria’s war.

The conflict has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions at home and abroad since starting with the brutal repression of anti-regime protests in 2011.

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